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Top of the draft board shines at Summer League

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The depth and quality of the 2017 NBA draft had teams tanking at the end of the regular season in hopes of vaulting into the top three picks.

With the huge caveat being that it was only summer league action, those at the top of the draft made quite a first impression.

Summer league play was set to end on Monday night after Portland played the Lakers in the Las Vegas league championship game. Over leagues played in Orlando, Salt Lake City and Vegas, many of the top 10 picks gave their teams plenty to feel good about before heading into the league’s quiet period for the next two months.

No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball owned Vegas with a pair of triple-doubles to help the Los Angeles Lakers reach the title game. Top pick Markelle Fultz showed off his wide array of scoring tricks in Utah before sitting out much of Vegas with an ankle injury and No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum of Boston was drawing comparisons to Paul Pierce while dominating both in Utah and Nevada.

The competition these rookies will face will increase exponentially when training camps open in October. And there is a long list of summer league standouts – Nikoloz Tskitishvili, anyone? – who never amounted to anything in the NBA. But for struggling franchises like the Lakers, Sixers, Suns and Kings, seeing some real promise from their youngsters the first time they step on the court is encouraging.

“Every day, Magic and I say: `How are we pursuing excellence?”‘ Lakers GM Rob Pelinka told reporters in Vegas on Sunday, referring to new Lakers president Magic Johnson. “To win the Summer League (would be) a step in that direction.”

Whether the Lakers achieve that goal or not doesn’t mean the suffering of the last four years is over. Far from it.

The real test awaits in a couple of months. But for several franchises that are in the business of selling hope right now, business is good.

Here are some other takeaways from summer league action:

PACKED HOUSE: Buoyed by Ball and the Lakers, the Vegas Summer League enjoyed record attendance numbers, including multiple sell-outs of Thomas & Mack Center.

What started as a gathering of a few teams 13 years ago has turned into a full-fledged event under the guidance of coaching agent Warren LeGarie and Albert Hall. Sponsors are lining up to get in on the action, fans crowd the concourses looking for autographs of the next big things and established stars like LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas and John Wall sit courtside to watch the games.

ESPN and NBATV televise the games and over 500 media credentials were given out for the Las Vegas site alone.

The Vegas tournament has grown to include 24 teams and is also home to the league meetings, where owners gather to consider rules changes and other orders of business for the season ahead.

“I told Mayor Goodman that we should get a commission for the NFL and the NHL following in our footsteps,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last week. “We were here when some leagues weren’t even taking advertising in Las Vegas, and we’re proud to be here. I feel our Summer League has become a fixture in Las Vegas, part of the permanent summer calendar.”

OTHER STANDOUTS: Fultz, Tatum and Ball weren’t the only youngsters to have strong showings in summer league.

Dennis Smith Jr., the No. 9 pick by Dallas, may have been the best player in Las Vegas, averaging 17.3 points and 4.2 assists per game for the Mavericks and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell averaged 28 points per game in just two games for the Jazz.

Sacramento’s De'Aaron Fox, the fifth overall pick out of Kentucky, displayed his athleticism and defensive instincts for the Kings. Josh Jackson, the No. 4 overall pick by Phoenix, averaged 17.4 points and 9.2 rebounds in Vegas and played with a competitive fire that intrigued many scouts leading up to the draft.

Portland’s Caleb Swanigan was consistent throughout and San Antonio’s Bryn Forbes had a pair of 35-point games to give the Spurs another promising young talent in the pipeline as they wait to hear from Manu Ginobili on his future.

FLIP SIDE: Just as we shouldn’t read too much into the successes of summer league, so to should the struggles be taken with a grain of salt. But Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls’ No. 7 overall pick who came over in the draft-night trade that sent Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, shot just 24 percent (6 for 25 on 3-pointers) in Las Vegas, not a great sign for a 7-footer billed as the best shooter in the draft.

Sacramento’s Buddy Hield, the centerpiece of the trade that sent DeMarcus Cousins to New Orleans in February, shot just 35 percent in three games in Las Vegas, a mark was aided by a binge of six 3s in his final game against the Lakers. Not what you want to see from a second-year player who will turn 24 in December.

 

5 Up, 5 Down: Jahlil Okafor finally gets to play some basketball

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5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA as it stands on alternating Monday mornings.

It feels like we should be more upset about the fact that we keep getting updates on major stars and their injuries. Stephen Curry has his walking boot off. Kawhi Leonard is close to getting on an NBA floor. Gordon Hayward is on Twitch and is now wearing a teensy little ankle brace instead of a walking boot.

This somehow feels good because it’s progress, even though what it really means is stars aren’t on the floor. Maybe that doesn’t matter, especially if you’ve watched the two teams topping the conferences play.

The Boston Celtics have an MVP candidate (yet again) in Kyrie Irving, and the Houston Rockets seem unbeatable. Anyway, I’m excited for another Warriors-Cavaliers Finals.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

5 Up

Jahlil Okafor is finally a Brooklyn Net

We talked last time about how we needed to see Jahlil Okafor play a little basketball (or at least play on offense) by getting out of Philadelphia. My choice was for him to go to the Brooklyn Nets, which is exactly where he went 10 days later. Some are calling the Nets “interesting” although I think for that to be the case Jeremy Lin and his hair would still need to be bouncing down an NBA floor. I’m just hoping Brooklyn isn’t unwatchable from here on out. Let’s start with that and see where they end up.

The New York Knicks letting this dude warm up with them

Kevin Thompson is a New York Knicks superfan who got to warm up with the team and get introduced during lineups. The whole thing was part of the team’s Garden of Dreams night, which according to the Knicks is part of an experiential foundation that helps kids facing obstacles. Pretty sweet stuff.

10 minutes, six fouls

Michael Beasley once said that he basically felt he was Carmelo Anthony, that their games were similar, because they operate from the same side of the floor. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing, but it was a great Beasley quote. This past weekend provided us with a Beasley moment, when the Knicks forward fouled out in just 10 minutes of play. The final blow was a sequence in the fourth quarter in which Beasley racked up three fouls in just 1:45 of game clock. When he had to leave due to disqualification, the crowd at Madison Square Garden gave him a standing ovation. I love the Knicks.

LeBron James is going to play for the Lakers … and the Rockets?

It’s not even 2018 and we’re already starting to talk about where LeBron James will land. It doesn’t feel likely he’ll stay in Cleveland, unless he buys the team of course. That’s probably not slated for the next year, so perhaps he will team up with Nerlens Noel and go to the Los Angeles Lakers? Or perhaps James is interested in the Houston Rockets, the team currently dismantling every other team in the West? This past summer was so crazy in the NBA, it just had to seep into the regular season. I’m all for it.

This Thunder team is a train wreck in slow motion

Real life is not NBA 2k18. That’s why you can’t just sim to the end of every Chicago Bulls game (can you imagine?) or force any trade you want. It’s also why three ball-dominant scorers playing iso ball don’t work, much to the chagrin of Oklahoma City Thunder fans. If you’re not an OKC diehard, this is probably the only thing you wanted to see outside of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony wrecking the rest of the Western Conference. It was never going to be interesting if this team got the 5 seed. Missing the playoffs is the next most interesting thing that could have happened, and frankly, perhaps the most understandable given the talent out West.

5 Down

Everyone is getting kicked out of games

Kevin Durant — long lauded as a silent assassin in the NBA — has been ejected from multiple games over the past month. He even had to be separated from DeMarcus Cousins after a recent one, which is crazy. Shaun Livingston‘s AARP card couldn’t get him immunity from an ejection. Hell, even a referee got suspended in that one. Tensions are rising in the NBA, and it feels like we all missed some memo from the league about a point of emphasis for this season saying everyone’s going to get rung on one technical foul. Are players flailing or is the league being unreasonable? I’m not sure, but tossing stars has to stop so you would think the league office will be looking into this.

Markelle Fultz is STILL out … for some reason

Markelle Fultz is fine, nothing to see here. I mean quite literally, because despite Fultz’s shoulder being A-OK, he’s still not scheduled to find an NBA floor for another three weeks. This feels like a decision the team would make under Sam Hinkie while winning single-digit games, but Hinkie is long gone and the Sixers are — gasp! — a .500 team sitting just outside the 8 seed. This still feels like some major piece of information is missing and I don’t know that we’ll hear about it save for in Fultz’s inevitable book in 20 years detailing Philly’s 8-peat championship run starting in 2020.

We’re not getting basketball in Seattle any time soon

A new memorandum of understanding was signed in the Emerald City this last week, meaning they are going to keep the ugly roof on top of Key Arena, knock down the walls, and dig a hole to the center of the earth as a means to expand the seating. Seriously, they have to dig down just to fit enough people in the arena. What this doesn’t mean is an NBA team. Los Angeles-based Oak View Group has said they will pursue both an NHL team and an NBA team, although locally in Seattle it’s known this plan puts events and NHL first. This is a bummer for NBA fans in Seattle, and for anyone trying to drive through Lower Queen Anne at any time of the day.

Everything happening with the Clippers

There’s almost too much to list here, but it’s topped by just how bad this team is. They were a .500 team when Patrick Beverley got hurt, and then Blake Griffin naturally followed. Danilo Gallinari has been on and off the court, and it’s been a quick degradation for LA after the flight of Chris Paul to Houston. DeAndre Jordan‘s contract now looms over the salary cap like a raincloud, and where he goes nobody will know. Can you tank and still keep Doc Rivers as your coach in 2017?

Marc Gasol is still a Grizzly

The Grizzlies are another mess, and disappointingly so. They were a perennial Good Team™ and both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol should have been favorites of yours to watch in the playoffs (mostly losing to the Spurs). Now, the team is in turnaround. Owner Robert Pera has been given an ultimatum from his minority owners, David Fizdale is gone, and Gasol is still starting games. It seems like there’s less heat on the team to move Gasol, but that’s how it always works in these situations when it’s not a garbage fire like Paul George last year. I expect to see Gasol moved before the trade deadline precisely because it feels like it would be super strange to see Marc Gasol not in a Grizzlies jersey. Hey, maybe to the Spurs?

Three Things to Know: Victor Oladipo drops 47, he and Pacers are legit

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Victor Oladipo drops 47 on Nuggets, shows he’s an All-Star and Pacers are for real. When the Pacers traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, we thought it was a massive step back for the Pacers. The Pacers also ditched Jeff Teague, C.J. Miles, and Monta Ellis and brought in Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison and Cory Joseph, which had them rebuilding (we figured low 30s in wins, tops).

We were wrong.

Last Wednesday Oladipo hit the game-winner against Chicago, then he led the Pacers to a win over Cleveland (snapping the Cavs 13-game win streak), and on Sunday he dropped 47 points on the Denver Nuggets in another Pacers’ win, the team is now 16-11.

Victor Oladipo has been playing like an All-Star — he should be one of the East guards off the bench — making a leap from role player in OKC to leading man in Indiana. The Thunder brought him in to be a third scorer behind Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, but when Durant left and Westbrook took over Oladipo regressed. This season Oladipo has the ball in his hands, is drawing contact and getting to the line on drives like he hasn’t in years, is finishing at the rim better than he has before (62 percent), is killing it from three (43.9 percent overall and 45.7 percent on pull-up jumpers from three), and he’s dishing out assists like he hasn’t since his rookie season in Orlando.

All of that — plus the fact Sabonis has taken a big step forward this season — has led to talk in some quarters that the Pacers won the trade with OKC that sent Paul George to a “super team.” Oladipo isn’t playing that game.

What Oladipo is doing is leading a Pacers team that has the sixth best offense in the NBA, and a team that’s getting easy buckets (fifth highest percentage of offense in transition, according to Cleaning The Glass). While the Pacers take more midrange jumpers than one might prefer, they are the second best team in the league at hitting them, so it works.

Maybe the Pacers come back to earth a little (their defense has been middle of the pack), but probably not as their point differential is pretty much in line with their record. Nate McMillan and company have gotten eight new players on the roster to blend beautifully. The Pacers are for real. This is who they are.

And Victor Oladipo should be suiting up as an All-Star in Los Angeles. He’s earned it.

2) Second most impressive feat of the night: Michael Beasley fouls out in 10 minutes. Michael Beasley has found regular minutes a bit hard to come by with the Knicks this season. Sunday, when the Hawks rotations forced the Knicks to play more small ball, Beasley got his run and was aggressive trying to make his mark and defend. What he did was foul out. Quickly — in 10 minutes. That got him a standing ovation in Madison Square Garden.

The Knicks ultimately got the win thanks to Kristaps Porzingis‘ 30 points and Doug McDermott adding 23 off the bench. And, of course, the efforts of Beasley (he was +10 in his 10 minutes, to be fair).

3) Kobe Bryant gave Eagles pep talk before they beat the Rams. Philadelphia came to Los Angeles Sunday for what was the NFL’s game of the week (and it was an entertaining one). The Eagles practiced for a few days in the sunshine of Los Angeles before the game, and on Friday huge Eagles fan Kobe Bryant came out to pump up the team.

Kobe also had a little video message for the world.

The Eagles got the win, but it may have come with a high cost as quarterback Carson Wentz suffered a knee injury and the signs aren’t good.

Michael Beasley fouls out in 10 minutes, gets standing ovation (VIDEO)

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Michael Beasley hasn’t played all that much for the New York Knicks. The journeyman forward is 10th in minutes played for the team, and is a bench contributor at this stage in his career.

Beasley appeared to be a bit overexcited to get some run late in Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Hawks, 111-107. Having played just 10 minutes in the game, Beasley quickly racked up three fouls in the span of one minute and 45 seconds.

That earned him his sixth foul — the others were picked up earlier — and a standing ovation from the Madison Square Garden crowd after his disqualification.

Via Twitter:

Support your guys, NBA fans, even if they’re out here getting DQ’d after scoring one point and grabbing two rebounds.

Kobe Bryant gave a 30-minute pep talk to the Eagles before Rams game (VIDEO)

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Kobe Bryant is just about everywhere during retirement. We’ve talked before about how his post-playing career revisionism is one of the greatest works of sports marketing currently underway.

Of course, Ol’ Bean has to take some days off from being a “storyteller” and that includes cheering on his hometown Philadelphia Eagles. Bryant was born in Philly and lived there for various parts of his childhood, of course going pro directly from Lower Merion High School, located in a nearby suburb.

So despite the return of the Los Angeles Rams, it appears that Kobe is still an Eagles fan through and through. He apparently even spoke to the Eagles for half an hour before the team practiced in California on Friday.

Bryant also gave the world a little video message.

The bummer news for Eagles fans, of course, was that it was Philadelphia QB and MVP candidate Carson Wentz who was hit high and low on Sunday, and the team fears that he has torn his ACL.

Kobe is looking pretty thick in that jersey. Maybe they should work him out and see if he can’t beat out Nick Foles for the starting job the rest of the season?